In one of the biggest blunders in recent local politics, city officials admitted this week that they provided false information to organizers of the Save San Jose Libraries initiative regarding the number of signatures needed to place a measure on the November ballot. As a result, the initiative—an effort that has been in the works for more than year—is unlikely to make it to voters.
A memo from City Clerk Dennis Hawkins to city staff Thursday admitted that organizers were told that they needed to gather more signatures than 5 percent of registered voters in San Jose to qualify for the November ballot. This is the threshold for enacting a new city ordinance. However, because the initiative would be a charter amendment that provides a fixed amount of the city’s general fund to libraries, the necessary percentage is 15.
Peter Allen, an organizer for Save San Jose Libraries—whose co-chairs include former Mayor Susan Hammer, former Vice Mayor Frank Fiscallini and Blanca Alvarado, the first Latina councilmember in San Jose’s history—said the city provided incorrect information to organizers dating back to March 2012. (Full disclosure: Allen is also a columnist for San Jose Inside.)
“They pretty much effectively killed our campaign,” Allen said. “It’s another example of city staff screwing up and trying to put the blame on others. It’s going to subvert the will of the people on a massive scale—40,000 registered voters.”
Allen said that number is the amount of signatures Save San Jose Libraries has gathered to date and planned on turning in this week.
While Hawkins expressed regret in his memo, he added that there is no legal obligation on the city to provide accurate information on the requirements to place an initiative on the ballot.
“It’s pretty obvious no one at City Hall in management knows what’s going on,” Allen said. “If something like this can happen, what else do they have confused? Should we go back and look at their analysis of Measure B?
“If we had been told we needed to get to the 15 percent threshold, we never would have gone down this path.”
An email sent by Hawkins to Allen as recently as Monday reads as follows:
“Peter: The total City of San Jose voter registration count, based on the report issued by the Registrar of Voters on 1/4/12 which was in effect at the time of your notice of intent, is 383,220. In order to qualify the measure for the next General Election, you need signatures from 5% of the total registered voters – therefore, you must have at least 19,161 valid signatures from City of San Jose registered voters in order to qualify for the ballot. Please contact me if you have any further questions. –Dennis”
Mayor Chuck Reed and several councilmembers, including SJI columnist Pierluigi Oliverio, have criticized the Save San Jose Libraries initiative. They argue it would take away badly needed funds to pay police. Allen and others counter that library funding has been decimated by a decade of budget shortfalls and other general fund money could be redirected to pay for public safety needs.
The initiative could still make it to the November ballot without submitting any signatures, if a majority of the City Council votes to do so.
“To me, that’s the most equitable, reasonable solution to this, that would satisfy all parties involved and could prevent a larger backlash against the city,” Allen said. “If we can’t get it on the ballot, and we can’t be reimbursed, there’s going to be heck to pay.”
He added that litigation to recover costs could be a possibility.